Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Books for the beach

What Labour MPs should be reading this summer

Along with their selections for Desert Island Discs, politicians’ declared choices of holiday reading are usually concocted to curry favour with the voters. Margaret Thatcher once claimed her choice of poolside reading was ‘the latest Jeffrey Archer’, when in reality it was more likely to be Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

So, regardless of what they say they are going to read (‘the latest Robert Harris’), or what they are actually going to read (‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty’) what should Labour members of parliament be reading this summer in their Umbrian villas or Dordogne gîtes?

There are plenty of new books by their colleagues to consider: Jim Murphy’s Ten Football Matches that Changed the World, or Tristram Hunt’s Ten Cities that Made an Empire, or Liam Byrne’s marvellous book about China, Turning to Face the East. Smile for the Camera, the story of Cyril Smith’s serial abuse of children, by Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk and his colleague Matthew Baker, should be read by all, although perhaps not on holiday.

Later in the year we can expect Why Vote Labour? edited by Dan Jarvis, which will help with Labour MPs’ campaigns. If they want to indulge in some first-class sucking up, they could read John Bercow’s new book about tennis players. If they want to get depressed, they could tackle The Too Difficult Box, edited by Charles Clarke, with chapters by Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Hodge and David Blunkett among others, which explores all the policy conundrums too tricky for politicians to solve.

In the run-up to the general election, Labour MPs should read The Political Brain by Drew Weston. The last Labour government had many qualities, but emotional intelligence was not one of them. Weston, an American academic, explains why modern politicians need to take account of voters’ emotional reactions as well as their rational ones. He says ‘the book is likely to be of interest to the 50 million Democratic voters who can’t figure out why their party has lost so many elections despite polls showing that the average voter agrees with Democratic positions on most policy issues.’

If you substitute ‘50 million Democratic voters’ for ‘ten million Labour voters’, the argument works just as well. If Labour is right, why don’t we win? Largely because, while voters may agree with us on specifics like the NHS or creating jobs, they are often swayed by deep-seated fears that we are going to break into their homes and steal all their savings from under the mattress. The central thesis is that voters do not make decisions using their dispassionate mind, but instead using their emotional mind, and it is something Labour MPs need to understand fast. Fear is a powerful motivator, and the Tories are going to spend £30m making people afraid.

If MPs fancy their chances, one classic should be top of the pile: Gerald Kaufman’s How to Be a Minister. It was first published in 1980 and was based on the author’s own experiences under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. It went out of print in the 1980s, and was revived just before Labour’s return to office in 1997.

It contains timeless and essential advice for would-be ministers and their advisers, including the warning about two dangerous diseases: ‘ministerialitis’ and ‘departmentalitis’. ‘Ministerialitis’ consists of getting a swollen head, never travelling on public transport, and believing yourself to be somehow important. ‘Departmentalitis’ consists of developing a kind of Stockholm syndrome with the department you find yourself in, to the detriment of your party, government or constituents.

Anyway, there is more wisdom in Kaufman’s pages than the whole of the cabinet manual they will shove into the first red boxes, and the next generation should consider it compulsory reading. There is a new book out this August under the same title by former Labour minister John Hutton and former mandarin Leigh Lewis, but it will struggle to be as good as the original.

Last, the latest biography of Clement Attlee, by Michael Jago. Do we need yet another biography of Attlee, you cry. Sure we do. No Labour MP can hope to be effective without understanding the party’s history, and, in particular, our most successful period of government. Attlee was a quiet, unassuming, unquotable little man, who just happened to be a brilliant army officer, genius party leader, effective politician in an age of titans, and the greatest prime minister of the 20th century.

He beat Winston Churchill, winning seats for Labour such as Bexley, Buckingham, Chatham, Chislehurst, Dover, Enfield, Faversham, Frome, Gillingham, King’s Lynn, Romford, St Albans, Thurrock, Uxbridge and Winchester. That is what a One Nation Labour party looks like.

Attlee’s government gave Britain the NHS, Nato, the nuclear deterrent, and British Rail. And then, despite winning a record number of votes for Labour in 1951, he lost. It is a story that must be studied and understood.

Three books for the beach. The first tells you how to win, the second how to govern, and the third how to transform the country. Better than a Jeffrey Archer.

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Photo: Tim Bartel

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